Erlinda Valencia has done a good job during her fourteen years as a security screener at San Francisco International Airport (SFO). During one particularly active two-week period in 2000, she alerted authorities to the presence of a loaded handgun in one carryon bag and a hand grenade in another. For these and other actions, the former teacher from the Philippines has received numerous commendations from her employers and the airport. Yet under a new federal law-meant to improve airport security-Valencia is likely to lose her job.

Along with 60 percent of her 1,200 colleagues at SFO and 25 percent of the nation’s 28,000 privately employed airport security screeners, Valencia is a legal permanent resident but not yet a citizen of the United States. Under the post-September 11 Aviation and Transportation Security Act, which replaces private security firms with a federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at most airports, immigrant screeners must become U.S. citizens by November 19 at the latest. That’s when TSA control is supposed to be phased in at all U.S. airports. "I love this job," says Valencia. But unless something gives (or the federalization process takes longer than Congress mandated), Valencia and 720 others could lose their jobs at SFO when TSA takes over. This is true even though SFO will be one of five airports in the nation where TSA will supervise a private screening company under a pilot program allowed under the law. At all other airports, TSA will run security operations.

Ashok Moloka also wants to keep his job. A police officer for ten years in his native Calcutta and a financial investigator for the Indian government for twenty years, Moloka moved to the United States in 1996 and has worked at SFO since 1999. He applied for citizenship in April, as soon as he became eligible.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) says his citizenship application will be processed within 460 days-it could happen more quickly. But Moloka is worried. "By that time," he says, "I will be long out of work."

In California, immigrant screeners have won broad support from airport managers (40 percent of the screeners at Los Angeles and more than 80 percent in Sacramento are noncitizens), labor unions, civil libertarians, elected officials, and religious leaders. The American Civil Liberties Union, the Bay Area Organizing Committee (BAOC), and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) have filed suits, lobbied elected officials, and organized public meetings and protests.

Catholics have been particularly outspoken. "We are organized and we will fight back," declares the Reverend Roberto Andrey, associate pastor of Saint Augustine Church in South San Francisco. A Filipino immigrant, Andrey is co-chair of the BAOC, an organization that links congregations, community groups, and labor unions around social issues. Andrey and other BAOC members argue for an expedited process of citizenship applications, the provisional hiring of screeners not yet eligible for citizenship, and state and federal support for job training and placement for laid-off screeners.

The workers have won considerable support from elected officials in California, and prospects for state and local support for laid-off screeners are-despite a debilitating state budget crisis-relatively bright. The likelihood of pushing reform in Washington is less promising. The Republican leadership backed citizenship requirements during the post-September 11 legislative process, and Democrats-who drove the federal takeover of security operations-either agreed or offered little resistance. Subsequent attempts to amend the law, including an initiative by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to allow immigrants who have applied for citizenship to serve with the TSA, have foundered because of a lack of Republican support. Sources close to Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta say his efforts to raise concern for immigrant screeners have found little sympathy within the administration. The best news the federal government has offered screeners in San Francisco is the inclusion of SFO in the pilot program. This means that hiring at SFO won’t take place until the fall, a pause that should allow the INS time to process citizen applications for as many as 160 screeners.

To a certain extent, critics say, the response of the government reflects a post-September 11 fear of foreigners. But advocates of the citizenship requirement have a strong argument. They say it’s hard to perform background checks on people who have been in the United States less than the five or six years it takes to become a citizen. Critics respond that pilots, flight attendants, airline mechanics, ramp workers, and others with access to airliners and secure areas at airports do not have to be citizens, and that citizenship is not a requirement for service in the U.S. military.

Jeimy Gebin spent three years in the U.S. Army before becoming a screener at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). A citizen of El Salvador, Gebin, twenty-one, faces the loss of her job when TSA takes over at LAX. "It doesn’t make sense that I can serve my country in the Army but not work in an airport as a screener," Gebin says. "I believe this law won’t make anyone safer, but it will hurt a lot of good, hard-working people." In response, Congressman Major Owens (D-N.Y.) has offered legislation conforming citizenship requirements for the TSA with those of the military. Like Feinstein’s effort, Owens’s bill has been stymied by a failure to attract Republican support.

Gebin has joined a suit, filed in federal district court in California, which contends the citizenship requirement creates an "unwarranted denial of the rights and liberties guaranteed to noncitizens under the Fifth Amendment to our Constitution." That amendment says that "no person" shall be deprived of "life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." According to the legal suit’s argument, the citizenship requirement is "unwarranted" because there is no demonstrable link to the act’s stated purpose of improving aviation security, and it deprives immigrants of rights because it establishes no process for determining whether an immigrant is a security threat.

If there is irony in all this, it’s that security screeners did not perform improperly on September 11. Hijackers used weapons-small knives-that were allowed on board under Federal Aviation Administration regulations. Nonetheless, immigrant screeners agree that security operations needed change. The old system, under which airlines hired security firms to serve their terminals, was notoriously inefficient. Wages in the industry barely topped the minimum wage, and benefits were few. The General Accounting Office cited high turnover and lack of experience as the major cause of lapses in airport security prior to the terrorist attacks. After September 11, the U.S. Department of Transportation chastised Argenbright, one of the largest security firms, and others for failing to vet applicants for security jobs properly, and numerous screeners nationwide were fired upon discovery of criminal records.

SFO, with its prevalence of immigrant screeners, was one of the few airports to show progress in addressing systemic problems prior to September 11. A combination of local legislation-advocated by community, religious, and labor activists-and successful union organizing raised wages from $6 per hour with no benefits to $13 per hour with health care. According to a study by the University of California, this drove the annual turnover rate down from 120 percent to 15 percent. Diminished turnover also allowed security firms at SFO to increase training from three hours to forty hours.

At a union meeting held shortly after September 11, immigrant screeners continued to push for improvements in security management and FAA oversight. At the same time, SEIU-in contrast to the airline unions and most Democrats-opposed federalization of airport security operations, arguing instead for stricter federal supervision.

Although the alliance backing the immigrant screeners shares more than the odd coalitions that emerged during the initial legislative battles-when the left-leaning SEIU worked with the Republican leadership-there are different camps and different positions. Some are tactical. Certain advocates-including many clergy-bring a militant posture to the process, issuing demands and putting politicians on the spot, insisting that they sign on to a specific agenda. Others want a more flexible approach in which negotiations come to the fore and politicians retain room to maneuver.

There are also strategic differences. Some advocates don’t believe the federal government or courts will open the TSA to noncitizens. They worry that the focus on keeping immigrants in screening positions creates false expectations and takes attention away from the fights that are winnable: securing job training and placement for the screeners who lose their jobs, and winning a commitment that screeners who do meet the basic qualifications will at least be interviewed for the new federal jobs. This isn’t enough for those who believe that many immigrant screeners are particularly well qualified to protect the nation’s airports.

New federal screeners, who will be paid between $23,000 and $40,000 per year, must have completed high school or have one year of screening experience. Many of the immigrants who are set to lose their jobs are far better qualified. Some have backgrounds as police officers, customs inspectors, or soldiers. Others are college-educated bankers, engineers, and teachers.

"Our airport is one of the finest, most secure airports in the United States, and that’s because of our screeners," says the Reverend Ken Weare, associate pastor of All Souls Catholic Church in South San Francisco. "We don’t want the screeners to lose their jobs-for their sake," he pauses, "and for our sake."

James B. Goodno reports on labor, politics, and urban affairs from California. He has covered airport issues for San Mateo Labor and KQED-TV’s "This Week in Northern California."

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the 2002-07-12 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.